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Over (a Lot of) Land, Sea, and Air

December 7th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

We’ve now set foot in 5 countries in just as many days1.

After catching our boat from the Pasajcap dock to Pana, we proceeded on to Guatemala City by shuttle to catch an overnight bus to Tikal.  At sunrise our bus pulled into our destination in Flores, and in our bleary-eyed state we fell prey to the sneaky doings of an overzealous tourism and transportation operator.  A fellow got on to the second level of our double decker bus and announced to the passengers that this was the place to get off for Tikal: just hop off the bus and on to the shuttle, and we’ll be taken to wherever we’re going in town.

It was so seamless, we assumed it was a benevolent add-on service provided by the overnight bus company.

We were heading for El Remate, a less touristy town about 30 minutes closer to Tikal than Flores.  Eagerly communicated Spanish assured me “Yep, we’ll take you there, give me your bag and hop on!”  After about an hour of cruising circles about town as the shuttle shuttled about its cadre of similarly bleary-eyed marks, we finally went onward to El Remate, roped in to pay 50Q a person when it should have been more like 20.  Not fatal, but annoying enough that I was delighted to decline Enrique the fare collector’s borderline pushy offer to set us up with a pre-dawn shuttle to Tikal, guide for Tikal, and subsequent transport continuing into San Ignacio, Belize.

“It should be 550Q but I give it to you for 450Q because I know her.  Good price for you my friend.”  (Indeed he knew Rutt, an Estonian gal I’d first met at the Mayan sun ceremony weeks earlier.  We’d coincidentally ran into her again on the overnight bus, and in the early morning shuffle Rutt was sold on our plan to stay in El Remate, making us travel companions for the day.)  It has consistently been my experience that the words “good price”, especially when uttered in English in a non-English speaking country, indicate a good price for the one doing the selling, as in “If you go for this I will have roped you in at a good price.”

Enrique first skirted around the fact that his good price didn’t include actual entrance to the park (150Q), and he completely neglected to mention that, when you go before 6am to catch the magic that is the sun rising over the Mayan temples while howler monkeys howl (which was part of his proud pitch), the price is 250Q.  Nuts to that, Enrique: if our transit to El Ramate is any indication, we’ll do way better to piece our trip around these parts together on our own, thank you very much.  (What can I say, I was still a little sore from the “aboard the sanctity of our bus announcement” hustle earlier.)

In El Remate, we hiked a quarter of a mile to accommodations, nicely nestled on the lake and tucked away from the main road.  The next day we did Tikal.

Tikal is a beautiful walk through jungle that has everything that is ominous and mysterious to love about it.  Well trodden paths through lush vegetation suddenly open up to massive clearings featuring one or more majestic structures of often staggering size.  In the morning a deep fog envelops both the paths and the clearings, giving the temples and eerie ancient vibe, which I suppose they well deserve.  Have a look at Tracy’s pictures of Tikal.

Unfortunately, due to a few deaths owing to presumably tragic missteps and/or jackass antics, most of the temples with their steep and endless staircases are off limits to climbing.  This is a shame because the view from that high, well above the lush treeline, is something worth witnessing.  The view from up on Temple IV suffices to satisfy pretty well in this regard, made available safely to all by the modern day winding wooden staircase built on top of still-buried portions of the temple.

(There were still a few jackasses who we saw early in the morning ignoring the signs and climbing other major temples.  My informal poll of Tracy and myself indicates an average 15% desire in people to see one of said jackasses fall as a gesture of instant karma asserting itself in real time.)

After Tikal we made our way on out of Guatemala and into Belize.  20Q got us out of El Remate to the next shuttle, and 50Q got us out of the country.  Our shuttle ride to the border felt like a Sunday drive with the family: we piled in to a minivan with 17 other people, 5 of which were in the front seat (3 small children).  Cramped but cozy, as we went and dropped people off we upgraded from our initial awkward position of facing backwards on a bench.

At the border we walked across the bridge, paid our 20Q a person to leave the country (sometimes I swear the guy stamping your paperwork at the border is making up the exit fee), walked forward 50 meters further and got stamped on in to Belize.  A quick cab and bus ride got us into our destination for the night, San Ignacio2.

The change was immediate.  After months in Central American where countries that mostly blend together, Belize was immediately distinct in terms of architecture (cinder block and corrugated tin roof construction is replaced with aluminum siding with wood trim), music (salsa is replaced with reggae), language (Spanish is replaced with English), and food (beans and tortillas are replaced by more Caribbean and other culinary influences).

The variation in food was quite delicious as we dined on Moroccan curry dishes, and the beer, Belikin, was quite tasty and more substantial than a lot of the pilsners we’d been having.  My mom and I took a trip here in late 20053.  Those memories plus the spoken English made Belize feel sort of like a homecoming, like we were reemerging from the deep jungle and back into civilization (which, of course, has a certain literal truth to it).

I needed a hair cut and wanted to fit one in before hitting the much pricier countries we were bound for.  I found a place in town called “Da Royal Cut”, and upon entering a laid back dude of like 26 greeted me and bid me sit down.  It was a little barber chair in the open air front room of what looked like someone’s 1st story flat.  He hit a button on the stereo and laid back reggae beats filled the room, it felt like the musical track of an MTV reality show makeover scene.  Then he grabbed the electric shears with a serious attachment and gave me the shortest haircut I’ve gotten in memory.  His technique seemed mindful but super chill bordering on lazy, I think he broke out an actual scissors for about 4 tidying cuts, possibly just for show.

I dug it.  It was like a barber shop trust fall.  The end result was tidy, and looked just a touch military.  $3.50 well spent.

We headed on to Belize City for a night in anticipation of our next day flight.  There’s not much to say about Belize City, but I must admit among blase scenery of urban decay there’s a certain scrappy pride about it.  In the morning there are folks out sweeping the sidewalks, going about their business, cheerfully bidding you good morning, and not trying to sell you anything with their politeness.

Among our limited 8am breakfast options we found only a place tucked away into the corner of the ground floor of the commercial center on the riverfront.  It had its name, “Butler’s Delite” spray painted on the wall above the entryway.  It was owned and run by a man and his daughter, happy to make us whatever we wanted from their motley assortment of options.  We settled on eggs, beans, coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, a little loaf of creole bread, and some stewed chicken that tasted out of this world.  “Holy crap that’s good chicken!” I thought as I sopped up the last of the sauce with the ample slices of creole bread.  The proprietors just opened two weeks ago, and I wished their venture well.  The tiny 2-table establishment describable as something between a food stand and a restaurant deserves to have a tidy clan of regulars.

We flew out at noon, onto our 2 hour layover back in El Salvador.  Our quest there while awaiting our plane was to catch a lunch of the delicious pupusas we’d fallen in love with 6 weeks before.  Unfortunately, airports tend to be really short of street food vendors cooking up legit deliciousness on tidy little portable griddles, especially behind the lines of airport security.  We settled for the only option we found, an airport bar advertising pupusas.  As you might have guessed, yep, they were rubbish.  But at least they cost us a lot more.

Onward then to San Francisco back in the US of A.  There once again the awesomeness of friends shined to make another 23 hour layover pass like a deliberate, joy-filled visit to town.  Ran, my insta-kindred-spirit and top-notch programmer friend that I met at Morgan & Jon’s wedding picked us up from the airport.  After catching sushi, Ran and I stayed up chatting and geeking out about JavaScript until 1am.  This says a lot to the quality of our quality time spent, for it was 3am according to my body with the time zone switches of the day, and after the lake I was accustomed to having a 9pm-ish bedtime.

Then next day Anna, a friend I picked up in Buenos Aires in ’09, played hostess to us in her fair town while we awaited our 7pm flight.  I must admit, during our stroll through the City Target I was a bit bemused by the prettiness of US-style retail as we wandered the immaculate and well-lit aisles.  A few months away can have that sort of thing instill a sense of wow once again.

After stocking up on essentials we made our way to her famous neighborhood of Haight/Ashberry for top-notch brunch.  After strolling the funky streets and the Golden Gate Park we parted company once more and made our way to the airport.  There during our wait I made sure to get a burger.  I found a good burger to be neigh on impossible to find in South and Central America, and didn’t want to miss out on my chance for one before venturing off to other countries of unknown burger quality.

And then it was time for our 13 hour flight.  With its more than ample collection of on demand movies, our passage to New Zealand passed by swiftly4.

Now we are in New Zealand which, unlike the Americas, is for both Tracy and I a whole new world5.  In an hour we rendezvous with Charles and Amy, our Couch Surfing hosts here in Auklund for the next two days.


  1. Technically it’s been 6 days on the calendar, if you count the magical disappearing of Friday when we crossed the international dateline this morning.
  2. In total our DIY price for what Enrique tried to sell us on (at 450Q per person) ended up right around 160Q, minus a guide for Tikal which we are generally more content to skip anyway.
  3. Mom, know that Tracy was duly impressed when I rattled off all the things we did in those 6 days.  When I think about it, I’m impressed.  We should travel again sometime, you got plans this Spring?
  4. For the record, I watched Love Actually (a fast-become holiday tradition for Tracy and I), The Simpsons Movie (seeing as how I was that kid who amassed like 16 VHS tapes of episodes painstakingly recorded off of television during most of the 90’s, it felt like I should cross that one of my list already), and The Campaign (as a proudly professed consumer of The Daily Show as my primary source for news, I have a soft spot for political satire).
  5. Unless you count familiarity gained by watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Man, a decade later New Zealanders still appear to be huge on the franchise, at least insomuch as it serves as a proud banner for tourism.  The actors in pre-flight safety video were all dressed like characters from the movie (for the record, Gandolf was pilot), and the in-flight magazine had a whopping 25-page feature on the soon-to-be-released The Hobbit.
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  1. December 30th, 2012 at 06:55 | #1

    I’m honored to be part of your adventures :-)
    JavaScript and Sushi FTW ! ^_^

    Looking forward to seeing you and Tracy again sometime in the near future ( hopefully ),

    – Ran.

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